Seattle based pianist Randy Halberstadt has been a major figure on the jazz scene in the Pacific Northwest for several decades, applying his talents as a pianist, composer, educator, and author. He has four previous releases as a leader, most recently with Flash Point (Origin, 2010). So yes, it has been some time since we last heard from the multidimensional pianist.
In the meantime, Halberstadt has garnered a reputation as an accompanist for jazz vocalists, most notably with the great Ernestine Anderson, Greta Matassa, Dee Daniels and Jay Clayton. His 41 years as a member of the faculty at Cornish College of the Arts has provided mentorship to generations of young musicians. His talents have been featured prominently with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra.
While his previous four releases have exhibited the fine nuances of his playing, his visionary compositions, and have featured top-tier talent, there is something that stands apart on his new release, Open Heart (Origin, 2018). Perhaps it is a newfound sense of freedom after retiring from Cornish to concentrate on his music. Perhaps it is the chemistry attained by seven Seattle based musicians that have spent many hours together over the years, both on and off the bandstand.
While most of this record is a septet venture, Halberstadt gives us two opportunities to hear him in the most open and vulnerable way-by way of trio. On his original composition "Clandestine," he shares space with bassist and longtime collaborator Chuck Deardorf, and drummer Adam Kessler. Deardorf, himself a transcendent talent from Seattle, solos beautifully, weaving lines between Halberstadt's eloquent comping, and the deft brushwork of Kessler. As is the case on the second trio offering, Henry Mancini's "Dreamsville," Halberstadt virtually defines melodic improvisation while soloing, breathing poetic life into both his original pieces and classic melodies.
"Song For Sulieman" is Halberstadt's homage to McCoy Tyner, and we for the first time hear the entire septet. Vibraphonist Ben Thomas adds harmonic depth to the ensemble, mixing his rich tonality into washes that blend perfectly with Halberstadt's chordal mastery. Saxophonist Mark Taylor offers his highly original sound on alto, and trombonist David Marriott broadens the spectrum still more.
Halberstadt delves into his fascination with Frederic Chopin with his take on "Nocturne in Bb Minor, Opus 9,#1." He first plays it straight in traditional form, allowing the free-flowing nature of the piece to lead into an elegant solo from bassist Deardorf, supported by the intricate musings of Kessler's brushwork. Halberstadt rounds out the trio sound with a solo that escapes the constraints of the classical form just far enough to be pulled back into the purity of Chopin's masterwork.
The septet dives head-first into another classic, Gershwin's "The Man I Love." in 7/4 time. The trumpet of Jay Thomas welcomes us into the fray, joined on a stunning arrangement with Marriott and Taylor. Within the context of this classic piece, the listener is engaged with the band at large. Halberstadt's jubilant interpretation leads the way, followed by superb solo work from trombonist Marriott. Marriott is one of the most imaginative practitioners of his instrument, a quality that is visible as well in his work as an arranger and composer. Taylor is an altoist whose identity is recognizable just a few notes into any of his solos. A prominent leader himself, with a sizeable performance and recording resume, he is emblematic of the prodigious talent on this album. Jay Thomas, whose jazz pedigree now spans half a century, is a rare find who plays beautifully on both trumpet and saxophone. Halberstadt's ability to visualize the sound of this ensemble, and add brightness and color with the vibraphone of Ben Thomas, demonstrates his strength as a leader and is yet another factor setting this record apart from his previous four efforts.
The title track accentuates Halberstadt's patience and spacial eloquence that allows him to be the perfect accompanist for vocalists, and in this case, a singable melody interpreted by altoist Taylor that opens up the ethereal nature of the piece.
There is an eloquence and grace to the playing of bassist Deardorf that continually becomes a factor on this recording. His perfect tonality and wide-ranging musicality ties together the far-reaching nature of this ensemble. His interplay with Halberstadt is seamless and allows the pianist to move the band into previously unexplored spaces.
All of the variant expressive pieces seem to come together for Halberstadt's composition "Wizzy Wig." The melody responds to a rollicking bass line, driven forward by Deardorf and Halberstadt. Kessler responds polyrhythmically, setting up brilliant solos by saxophonist Taylor, trumpeter Thomas, and vibraphonist Ben Thomas. The energetic piece is emblematic of the full, rich sound of this septet, and alludes to the possibilities of this band as a concert entity.
One would think that an artist releasing his first album in eight years, would perhaps fret over the details, and overproduce to a point of no return in terms of jazz sensibility. One gets the opposite sense on Open Heart. It is as if Halberstadt is more comfortable with his artistic self, and is willing to open up his musical world unselfishly. Perhaps the title says it best. There is a beautiful openness that occupies each selection. One gets the feeling it will be a lot less than eight years before we hear from him again.